Author Q&A: Lisa Blower

Named after an idiom specific to her native Stoke-On-Trent, It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s (Myriad, £8.99) is a new collection of short stories

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Tell us a bit about the title of the book. Do you think language and sayings such as this one are dying out among younger generations whose communities are online as opposed to where they live?
A dialect was often associated with the industry of the region and spoken amongst the workers so I guess in a post-industrial landscape the dialect dies with the factory. I never realised I even spoke in dialect until we moved to Shropshire, and then I’d use words or phrases I’d grown up with like “lozzicking” or “firking” or “mithering”, or see a thunderstorm brewing and say “it’s gone dark over Bill’s mother’s” and people would look at me blankly or ask who Bill’s mother was and where did she live. Then I’d tell them what it meant – looks like rain or trouble’s brewing – and they’d tell me it didn’t make sense or try and deconstruct it, and that’s what I love about sayings like this because there isn’t really a concrete explanation or a definitive origin. So when it came to titling the collection, which is largely set in the Potteries where I grew up, I wanted something that boldly said “made in Stoke-on-Trent”. I know it’s long with three apostrophes but it summed up the collection for me in terms of making the bleak funny.

As for our millennials, the big factor is that no one uses a physical voice when online. It’s a written voice that veils location and aims for inclusivity to attract and engage – hence text speak – so slang, abbreviation and numerical replacements for certain words; an online community has no borders so a dialect doesn’t always register to identify or represent where the written voice is from. It’s a great shame really when you consider that dialect will eventually die out with our older generations and the traditions they grew up with.

Interestingly, I’ve just been asked to contribute to an anthology for Nine Arches Press and Writing West Midlands whose primary objective is to resurrect dialect and demonstrate its natural use. It’s got me thinking about my grandad who used to do the crossword by spelling the words how he said them (in a Potteries dialect) and then you’d find this discarded crossword full of crossings-outs all screwed up in the bin. That speaks volumes to me now.

The stories differ in format: Chuck and Di has stage directions, Drive has numerical subheads, some are two pages long and some are 20. Is it a much freer form than novel writing?
Chuck and Di is my homage to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (one of my favourite influential reads) so it’s a monologue (and one I always imagine being played by Sue Johnston!) But novels, short stories, poetry – they’re all free forms when dependent upon words being arranged in a certain way to tell a story, and though we analyse the act of storytelling, it’s also an art and often the structuring of a story can tell the story. For instance, Drive (In 17 Meanings) is episodic, each episode referring to a different meaning of the word to create the whole. Barmouth uses key landmarks as titles to establish a sense of stasis – a place that reassuringly does not change – whilst the story passes through four decades. Happenstance is a dialogical exchange between selves but asks the reader to determine if there’s one or more person present.

Form is not always a determined decision for me. Rather it evolves when I start to experiment with perspective or come across something that blows me away, like Jennifer Egan’s genius Powerpoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Ryan O’Neill’s Figures in a Marriage in The Weight of a Human Heart that positively laughs in the face of form. And then there’s Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers and Cynan Jones’s The Cove, which were both marketed as novels but are not just novels and could quite pass as long short stories too.

I love it when a writer thinks about the story’s look or its economy and decides that the best way to tell it is through appearance, and the short story enables experimentation with voice, with form, with structure. It’s not that it’s freer, because I personally don’t believe in rules and definitions when that confines the author to a framework that does the writing a disservice. But it is cunning and crafty, wildly underestimated and by no means the novel’s troublesome sibling when it has to be twice as clever.

The industrial heritage of the potteries industry is present throughout your stories. How does it live on in Stoke, where you grew up?
There’s a little fire burning in the belly of Stoke-on-Trent – Middleport, Emma Bridgewater – it’s a great shame it was pipped at the post for Capital of Culture because it would’ve helped to showcase all that is happening and has been happening. But for a long time, and like any city defined by its industry, it felt adrift. And, of course, Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six towns rather than a central focal point, each town with its own industrial heritage that came to form the Potteries. It’s therefore not a case of one centre being resurrected but a place of six hearts beating again in one body.

Stoke-on-Trent is also a place that’s not been massively present in literature, at least not since Arnold Bennett. When describing the landscape in Clayhanger he ends with “Beauty was achieved but none saw it”, and I adore that line because it sums up how Stoke-on-Trent is only ever observed by outsiders, and often with that Orwellian class tourism. Beauty absolutely exists and it’s deep within its people. That’s what I cling onto in my stories – reflecting all that beauty within a simple slice of life.

The narrator of Barmouth, the first story in the collection, has few prospects while the narrator of Abdul, the last story, is a social worker. Did you consciously order the stories to reflect an upward social mobility?
That’s an interesting take on the order and not one I’d thought about! Rather the collection is bookended by journeys, though we were careful to end with Abdul because I wanted the collection to end with a story that had no end because for me, a good short story is not the one you’ve read but the one you’re left thinking about.

“I’m a writer of place, of characters synonymous with that place and reflected within a slice-of-life snapshot of what their life is really like. But when you place that story somewhere like Stoke-on-Trent, the class subject is raised.”

Two Muslim men and a Thai woman feature among a cast of presumably white men and women in these stories. Do these characters reflect a growing diversity in working class communities?
Yes, but that’s not say I write conscious of colour. Unless it’s a formative part of the story, I rarely mention it and leave it to the reader to decide. But reflecting the working class authentically and in all its diversity is part of a wider argument in publishing. It’s imperative that the industry opens its doors more to the regional voice, to stories of place and the class subject when we are so culturally diverse, because there’s never been a more vital time to represent the stories that would otherwise not be told.

The matriarch figures strongly in many of the stories. Do we underestimate the power women held in traditional family units, despite men holding most of the economic power?
I grew up surrounded by working-class matriarchs. They had a lot to say and weren’t afraid to say it – “Have you had your hair done? Is that how you normally have it done? What’s made you have it cut like that?” – and they looked out for each other, saw the funny side, made each other laugh. Hid a lot from each other too, and that always interests me about women; we spend a lot of time hiding ourselves from ourselves. I like to capture that in my stories – it’s all in what’s not said. Plus, my PhD was on female autobiographical practices and that characteristic – of having to decode a text to find the true self within – lends much in the depiction of working-class women.

My character Constance, in my novel Sitting Ducks, is perhaps the most powerful matriarch I’ve written so far because she really will fight to the bitter end and is full of scruffy wisdom, but I am interested in gender politics when the power shifts from male to female so that’s why you have characters in the collection like Di, like Alma Bunny, and Ruth, the happy hooker in The Land of Make Believe.

So no, I wouldn’t say the men had all the economic power because most of the women I grew up with worked. They had to, especially during strikes and mass unemployment owing to the closure of industry. But there was always this interesting dynamic where you’d be playing at someone’s house and suddenly their dad would be home from work and you had to leave. I remember one mum always saying “Your dad doesn’t want to come home to all this mess”, and I look back on that on now and wonder what that really meant because perhaps he didn’t want us to see him.

There has been progress in publishers representing working class voices in fiction?
There’s been some much-needed media coverage thanks to Kit De Waal and Kerry Hudson, who have lent their voices to the call for more working-class fiction, more regional voices, and definitely more working-class writers whatever their fiction. The Bookseller recently conducted a survey on class in publishing (though the fact that they are even conducting a survey suggests there’s still a problem), and the results were pretty conclusive in that opportunities for the working-class writer still remain poor. Then there are other issues: that working-class fiction has to be a tale of hardship and Shameless antics; that if you write working-class fiction you have to be able to validate your working-class status; that to highlight the obstacles is part of the working-class chip; that there still exists the internal narrative that I can’t be a writer if I’m working-class because it won’t pay the bills. There’s both an internal narrative and an external one, like two magnets pushing against each other.

It’s also important to say that most writers of working-class fiction don’t write overtly conscious of class. I think I’m a writer of place, of characters synonymous with that place and reflected within a slice-of-life snapshot of what their life is really like. But when you place that story somewhere like Stoke-on-Trent, the class subject is raised. When I wrote Broken Crockery, I was mourning my Nan and so that story is, for me, about a little girl trying to understand why people we love have to die. Barmouth was about tracing a family’s history through an annual family holiday to the same place over four decades, so a family saga. As was Sitting Ducks. That’s about a family doing all they can to save themselves from a predatory landlord and sticking together. My next novel Pondweed is about childhood sweethearts taking to the road to find answers from their pasts to explain their present, but I am sure, because these characters start off in Stoke-on-Trent, I will be asked if it’s working class.

What’s imperative then is access, opportunity and encouragement – to education, to the arts in general, to the industry. And for the industry to be more open to invest in the writer as a long-term prospect. It’s also worth noting that the industry welcomes the class subject from Scottish, Welsh and Irish writers but the writer of English working-class fiction struggles to find its place when it should be seen as adding to the canon that evolved with Robert Tressell, with Barry Hines, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Nell Dunn, Shelagh Delaney, Andrea Dunbar. It has its own history and very distinct identity. And don’t forget how we sit in our millions watching The Royle Family, or The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Made in Dagenham, I, Daniel Blake, or anything by Jimmy McGovern or Paul Abbott. Then think of the stratospheric success of Peter Kay and John Bishop with their observational comedy that relies on the working-class experience. I’m often asked why the working-class subject doesn’t find its feet in literature, and my answer is that what we watch in our droves begins with the written word and it’s all storytelling so there really should be no difference in the consumption. Yet there is.

So, does that suggest that publishing gatekeepers are not seeing the success of this stuff when ratings suggest an appetite for it? Because “something” stops the working-class subject from finding its feet in publishing, and without that access, then a vital genre that represents a significant culture will sadly disappear.

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